IT'S MIDAFTERNOON AT A DOWNTOWN barbecue joint. As traffic rolls slowly by and an overhead police 'copter does its best to render conversation inaudible, Stew of
The Negro Problem pushes back the remains of his “sampler plate” and ponders life in the strange city he calls home.
“I remember reading about when the Velvet Underground came to L.A.,” he says. “One of them — I forget which one — said that L.A. is much more decadent than New York, because in New York you can kind of see everything that's going on, whereas in L.A. people are behind closed doors, doing all manner of things which can't be done on the street. I can really identify with that.”
Indeed, there's definitely a furtive, dimly lit aspect to much of Joys & Concerns, The Negro Problem's long-awaited second album, just out on the band's own Aerial Flipout label. In “Repulsion (Show Up Late for Work on Monday),” a woman barricades herself in her apartment and slowly loses her mind, while “Ken” finds a gay doll raging quietly from a toy-store shelf against the cruel fate that has cast him as Barbie's steady boyfriend. “Bleed” and “Come Down Now,” the two emotional centerpieces of the record, survey the wreckage of romance with all the hushed anguish of Woody Allen's Interiors. “This one,” says Stew, “is kind of our 'indoors' record.”
Musically, it's also a straightforward effort, something that may surprise listeners accustomed to the manic twists and turns of Post-Minstrel Syndrome, the band's widely acclaimed 1997 debut. While some of the change undoubtedly owes to the band's latest lineup — Wednesday Week bassist Heidi Rodewald joined the TNP core of vocalist-guitarist Stew and drummer Charles Pagano shortly after the
first album was released — Stew has also learned to find beauty in simplicity.
“The old songs were always a bitch to play live,” he laughs. “I never really sang the first batch of songs, because there was just so much to think about. You can actually do more with simple music. Complicated music creates a lot of boundaries and restrictions. I find myself singing the new stuff and thinking, 'Wow, that's why Van Morrison has so much fun!' — if it's just a couple chords, you can just go off. I think the first stuff went over a lot of people's heads. A lot of it still sounds wacky to me.”
But if you're thinking that The Negro Problem have jettisoned their rampant idiosyncrasies in an attempt to become the next Goo Goo Dolls, you'd better give Joys & Concerns a spin. Though the melodies are more direct than before, and the chord progressions less complex, there's still much of the band's old “mutant Jimmy Webb” vibe apparent in songs like “Sea of Heat,” “Heads” and “The Rain in Leimert Park Last Tuesday.” (Auxiliary members Carolyn Edwards and Probyn Gregory provided, respectively, the record's multi-
hued keyboards and Bacharachian horns.) Throw in Stew's lusty tenor, Pagano and Rodewald's loose-limbed rhythms, lyrical references to things like network anchorman Peter Jennings and Disneyland's old Monsanto ride, and some admittedly ramshackle production values, and Joys & Concerns still sounds pretty much like a Negro Problem record.
“We always kind of stumble into the studio,” says Stew. “We never plan for it, and when we're in the studio, we like to get out as soon as possible. I spent most of the '80s listening to ghetto-blaster rehearsal tapes of bands I knew, so to me the early Fall sounds like Steely Dan. It's not like I'm trying to avoid getting a good drum sound. It's just that I don't think about it. That's not where my head is at.”
NOR IS STEW INTO “WAITING AROUND for any label, big or small, to sprinkle the fairy dust on us and make us famous.” Frequent appearances in San Diego and Tucson have extended the band's loyal following well beyond its Silver Lake base of operations, and they're currently planning a month of East Coast gigs. Because it's been a year since the band was out East, Stew feels that an intensive TNP saturation of the region is the only way to go.
“Since the major-label cookie-cutter people aren't into what we're doing, and the indie-rock snobs aren't into it, the only thing we can really do is find out who is into it and get a direct line to them,” he says. “I think a lot of L.A. bands get to this plateau where it's like, 'Oh, we can pack Spaceland, and the L.A. Weekly did an article on us, so let's just wait around now because the riches are going to pour in.' We realize what we're up against. Basically, we just have to find our people.”
The Negro Problem appears at the Troubadour on Tuesday, June 1.
THE NEGRO PROBLEM | Joys and Concerns (Aerial Flipout)